REVIEW: “The Pope’s Exorcist” (2023)

Within the realm of horror movies lies a number of fun sub-genres. There’s zombie horror, vampire horror, haunted house horror, slasher horror, etc. etc. etc. Among the most explored over the years is the realm of supernatural horror. Movies from this sub-genre tend to branch out in a number of different directions. Possession films are a clear favorite of filmmakers and we get another one with the new Russell Crowe led chiller “The Pope’s Exorcist”.

Directed by Julius Avery from a script by Michael Petroni and Evan Spiliotopoulos, “The Pope’s Exorcist” is based on the memoirs of Gabriele Amorth, a Catholic priest and exorcist for the Diocese of Rome from 1986 to 2016. A controversial figure in modern Catholicism, Amorth gained international notoriety for the thousands of exorcisms he has performed. The film pulls elements of its story from two of Amorth’s books, “An Exorcist Tells His Story” and “An Exorcist: More Stories”.

Russell Crowe is a nice fit playing Father Amorth. He’s the movie’s biggest strength, selling us with his believable look, demeanor, and a really good handling of the Italian language. It’s the type of seasoned turn that can carry a film. And there are times in the movie where Crowe does just that. It’s a fascinating performance that’s sincere yet delightfully wacky. Whether Crowe was intensely going toe-to-toe with a malicious demon or puttering around Rome on an undersized Vespa while fully decked out in priestly regalia, I was onboard.

Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures Releasing

Overall, there’s really nothing here we haven’t seen before, and if you have at least a couple of exorcism movies under your belt, there’s not much here that will catch you by surprise. Yet Avery builds some good atmosphere and cranks up enough tension to keep things entertaining. He even cooks up a fun but admittedly lightweight demonological Da Vinci Code-esque mystery that really emphasizes the movie’s open-armed embrace of the fantastical.

Set in 1987, Father Gabriele Amorth is summoned before a panel led by the insufferable Cardinal Sullivan (Ryan O’Grady). Sullivan is part of a youth movement who are anxious to move the Catholic Church away from its older practices and towards things that are more “relevant” in their modern world. Gabriele’s exorcisms fall among those “older practices”, but he’s having none of it. Gabriele is quick to remind them of who he works for – none other than the Pope himself (played by the one and only Franco Nero).

Meanwhile, a recently widowed mother named Julia (Alex Essoe), along with her rebellious teen daughter Amy (Laurel Marsden) and introverted younger son Henry (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney), leave the States and travel to rural Spain after she learns her late husband has inherited a long vacant old abbey. In desperate need of income, Julia is having the place fixed up to sell. But when the construction team unearths a hidden chamber in the cellar, they inadvertently release a malevolent spirit who immediately possesses young Henry.

After getting word of the potentially powerful demon, the Pope sends Gabriele to Spain to help Julia and her family. Once there he’s joined by an inexperienced local padre named Father Tomas Esquibel (Daniel Zovatto). The pair quickly learn that they are dealing with a particularly evil spirit – one who knows their deepest secrets and who is ready to use their past sins against them. The mystery angle is set in motion once Gabriele sets out to discover the demon’s name in order to cast it out. From there Avery runs with the craziness. The story takes some bonkers turns as a host of secrets are revealed.

Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures Releasing

The batty final act is a hoot despite being a little hard to follow (I’m still not sure why certain things were happening). It’s where we get to watch Crowe go full-tilt, hamming it up yet maintaining a surprising amount of warmth. The best thing about Crowe is that he’s not just playing for the camera and cashing a check. He remains engaged and takes on the material with tenacity and integrity. The Oscar-winner brings seriousness and levity to the movie, embracing its wilder elements yet also showing earnestness and affection.

While Avery creates some good atmosphere, the movie isn’t particularly scary. We get several conventional attempts at frights (noises within the walls, whispers in the night, and so on). And Henry has all the signs of possession that many of us know by heart (a menacing demonic voice, deep cuts across his skin, violent convulsions, etc.) Yet there is a persistent eeriness in large part thanks to production designer Alan Gilmore and DP Khalid Mohtaseb. And we get some pretty splashy visual effects that really lets the blood flow (quite literally).

“The Pope’s Exorcist” may not fully differentiate itself from the myriad of other exorcism movies that have come before it, but it did hit me with a few things I wasn’t expecting. I mean who knew this was really a buddy priest movie with Conjuring-like franchise ambitions? I sure didn’t. And again there’s Russell Crowe. He’s at a stage in his career where (sadly) the roles aren’t always what they used to be. It’s great to see he’s embracing it and still doing the kind of work that can elevate whatever he’s in. “The Pope’s Exorcist” is in theaters now.


10 thoughts on “REVIEW: “The Pope’s Exorcist” (2023)

  1. Now I really need to see this . I confess as a believer I do believe in demonic forces , so these type of movies intrigue me . I usually always enjoy Crowe as well. Hopefully in the next few weeks . As usual your reviews are always thoughtful and well written.

    • Thanks so much. These movie intrigue me as well. This one is interesting. It takes a pretty serious look while also fully embracing a more fantastical movie-like vision. And Crowe is really good. I have always enjoyed him too.

  2. I’ll wait for it on a streaming service near me. It is cool to see Russell Crowe stretching himself for a bit as I’m still in awe over his performance as Zeus in Thor: Love & Thunder as I could watch him do that part for 2 hours. He was so fucking hilarious.

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